PHOTOS BY FRANK SUN
Better known by her stage name, Emmy the Great, Emma-Lee Moss writes endearing and honest-seeming songs. Since she first started making demos in the mid-2000s, Moss' songs have felt very personal. In one early song, "Canopies and Grapes," she deals with a painful break-up, but inserts such personal and particular references that you feel like you know her. You relate to the specific.
Moss is often lumped into the Noah and the Whale, Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons London music scene—but she's very much her own artist. "Noah started when I started and we were backing each other. But that was so early on," Moss explains. "That part of my life really got picked up on, when it's so brief and ephemeral for me."
After two well-received solo albums, Moss' latest project is something new: a film score. Working with composer Ilan Eshkeri (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, Coriolanus), she wrote the soundtrack to Austenland, which just premiered at Sundance. The films centers on Jane (played by Keri Russell), who is obsessed with Pride and Prejudice—in particular the idea of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. If this premise sounds very familiar, you should first know that it is the directorial debut of Napoleon Dynamite co-writer, Jerusha Hess.
EMMA BROWN: I've always really loved your music.
EMMA-LEE MOSS: Aw, thanks! I really love Interview Magazine. Do you know Blood Orange? He just did an interview there.
BROWN: Is this your first time at Sundance?
MOSS: Yeah. I got here on Thursday, and it's been crazy cool. I got off the plane, it was a really long flight from New York, with a layover, and I was pretty tired, but I saw the mountains, and the lights—I've never actually seen anything like this place.
BROWN: Is there anything you really want to see while you're here?
MOSS: I want to see [Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut] Don John's Addiction, and my friend Felicity [Jones] is here in Breathe In, and there's a couple of the non-competition ones that look really, really good. Is there a Dakota Fanning one?
BROWN: Very Good Girls?
MOSS: Yeah. And then the Slamdance movie I want to see is called Best Friends Forever and it's about the apocalypse, and a comic book artist, and it just seems a bit perfect.
BROWN: How did you first get involved for writing music for films?
MOSS: It was Ilan [Eshkeri, the film's composer], actually. He was working on a movie with my ex, Tim [Wheeler] and he got in touch with [writer-director] Jerusha [Hess] about Austenland, and they realized they needed an original soundtrack to go within the film, to kind of represent Jane's internal world. [Ilan] just thought of me. I can totally see why he thought of me, I love [Jerusha's] movies—Gentlemen Broncos is my favorite movie—and I'm sure I've been inspired by that as well. So, it felt really perfect and I had to make it happen. I was up really late every night, trying to write and sending it over to Jerusha and Ilan, and being like, "Does this represent it? Does this represent it?" It was most songs I've ever written in a week.
BROWN: Did you do it all in one week?
MOSS: No, I kind of came up with a few pitches in a week, and then I wrote them and recorded them, at Abbey Road, in three or four weeks. It was very to a deadline. It was great to work like that.
BROWN: Were you working just from the script? Or did you have footage as well?
MOSS: They gave me the rough script. There were some songs she felt vaguely suited that scene and I was able to be like, "The thing that works here is the tempo, because it's a sad moment, so the tempo is slow, so I'm going to take the tempo as my jumping-off point." So there was a lot of structure. But just really understanding Jane, just relating to her, made me enjoy writing her.
BROWN: Did you have a favorite song from the film?
MOSS: The Austenland theme. Because it wasn't supposed to happen. That was just me being like, "Guys, last night I was up all night listening to one of Ilan's themes, and I wrote this Weezer-like song. I just think we should have it on the soundtrack. It won't be in the movie. It's called ‘Austenland.'" And they were like, "Why don't we make it the theme tune?'" And when we saw the last scene, I was like, "Screw Weezer—let's make this a J-Pop crazed, too much sugar, Disney princess kind of song." And it was so much fun. We were watching horrible J-Pop videos together. Not horrible—wonderful—like the best videos in the world. There was another song that didn't make it in, "Martin's Theme," it's like a power ballad and it's him singing it to Jane. We didn't find a place for it. But I'm going to leak it. It's so funny.
BROWN: What are you working on now?
MOSS: I'm working on my third solo record, pretty hard. Last year I wrote another soundtrack. I've always been working on Emmy the Great as a project, but last year I did a lot of other stuff—like this movie and the other one, and helping people out, playing shows for my friends. It suddenly got to the beginning of 2013 and I was like: It's time to focus, and use all the amazing stuff I have learnt from working with these people, and see if I can turn it into a record.
BROWN: Is there a theme for the album?
MOSS: There's so many themes. I didn't want it to be a breakup album—my first record [First Love, 2009] was a breakup album, my second [Virtue, 2011] was a super-catastrophe breakup album...
BROWN: "We Almost Had a Baby?"
MOSS: No, that was from my first one. That was an innocent time. The second one was all about this guy that had left me just before we were about to get married and it was psycho—it was such a weird time for me. It's been about a year since I put it out, and I can't wait to have a new story out there, so people aren't like, "That happened." [laughs] That record, I feel very exposed in. I broke up with, like, three guys before I started making this one. I was like, Whatever happens, there will not be a single note of breakup on this record. I went through a science theme: I'm only going to write about Silicon Valley and how the world is now, and that didn't really last very long. I realized all my songs were starting with ‘S,' so for this crazy week, I was like, "Every song's going to start with ‘S.'!" But now I've gotten to a point where I'm just going to express myself, and that's really different for me, to not come almost in an overly cerebral way. This is kind of more guts than brain.
BROWN: I know this is a really early song, but I love "My Party," it's so whimsical and hilarious.
MOSS: Oh, thanks! I forget about that one. That was my first ever demo, ever, ever. It's on the Internet, isn't it?
BROWN: On YouTube.
MOSS: The fucking Internet. I started my career just at the beginning of MySpace and YouTube and stuff, and I bumped into a friend yesterday and he and I used to get naked and film each other for art videos, and I was like, "I'm so glad that wasn't now, because all those things would be on YouTube, and everyone would be able to access them, and my parents would be seeing them and they'd be there forever." I was just lucky. It was just before. But my early demos are still there.
BROWN: Do you feel really far removed from them?
MOSS: Yeah. You just have to celebrate who you used to be. I feel like I've been writing different songs every time I start a new project. Hopefully one day you'll be able to trace the growth, or the way that I was learning to be a musician. Because when I wrote "My Party," I was not a musician. I was just a drunk kid. That was me having a go. Now I feel more like I might actually be a songwriter.
BROWN: Are there any songs you can't play anymore—that just make you cringe?
MOSS: It's more like every time I write a song I cringe about it until years have passed, and then I'm like, No, that's okay. That's who I was. I'm very conflicted about that stuff. I think anyone who writes—you probably have this too—you have this intense need to express yourself and then you are so afraid of how you've exposed yourself that you don't want anyone to hear it. It's terrifying. But I'm trying to get over that. But there's songs I physically can't play because I used to play on the acoustic, and now I play on the electric. So when I try to play on the acoustic, I just can't do it.
BROWN: Why did you change from acoustic?
MOSS: It's a bit easier, looks more badass, and I prefer the sound of the electric on an amp. It has a richer sound. I just got a bit tired of being that girl who shows up in a dress and plays acoustic. When I started out, and that's what I did, I didn't' think about it, I just did it. I'm still proud of that. But now I have experience, and I know about my sound. So I just can't mentally show up acoustic, in a dress.
BROWN: Do you think it's hard for female songwriters—you're automatically that girl in a dress?
MOSS: Yeah. Actually, even when I say that, I wonder if I'm conforming to an idea, because what about a dude with a guitar? Do we think it's worse for him [when] he's shown up playing solo? No. We probably respect him more. It is harder. I read this Imogen Heap article the other day and she was saying that she once didn't get playlisted for Radio One, a BBC [station] in England, because there was already a female singer/songwriter on the playlist. And she was like, "There's, like, five all-male bands on here, is that a problem?" You realize these things. Or on a label roster, sometimes it will be, "Oh, I'd love to put this out, but we've kind of got our female singer." It's so strange. But we kind of work around it. It's like anything about being a female. You have to work harder. And in a way you kind of end up better off for it, because you've learned how to work around situations. And you do have to think so much more about your appearance. Having been in bands with boys, I just realize how much more periphery stuff you have to think about it.
BROWN: What bands—other than Noah and the Whale?
MOSS: I was in Lightspeed Champion, who is now Blood Orange. Well, I mean, I sang backing for him. I say I was in it; he'd probably be like, "Hey!" I sang with Ash, I liked singing for Ash. When I started my career, I thought I was going to be a backing singer, so the idea that I was writing my own songs was always perplexing. But now I like grabbing it and making it what I do.
BROWN: What's the first song you wrote?
MOSS: Oh, I found it the other day! Me and my friend are doing this podcast about the '90s. It's a nostalgia podcast. And we did this Christmas episode. She was like, "What was your favorite Christmas?" and there was a Christmas when I was 14—I got a blue guitar and I wrote a song. And I remembered the song. And I was like, Oh my god, this is the best song I've ever written. It's all about flying in the air and believing in yourself. There's this line that's like, "Don't forget the rainbow freak." And I'm like, "Wow... I'll never write like that again."
AUSTENLAND IS CURRENTLY SCREENING AT SUNDANCE. FOR MORE SUNDANCE 2013 COVERAGE, CLICK HERE.